The Guest House
— by Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
A playshop participant of mine recently told me how challenging it was for her daughter to enter grade one: “My daughter got put with a teacher who was very academic and outcome driven. The teacher assessed her students the first week they were there, and was upset that my daughter didn’t know how to read or write small words. I told her that she just came out of kindergarten, but this fell on deaf ears. My daughter soon experienced stomachaches, headaches and started peeing the bed again. I tried so hard to explain to her teacher how her way of teaching was impacting my daughter, but she just really couldn’t get it. She would pull her out of gym time, one of her favorite activities, to work on reading.”
There is compounding evidence to show that we impede the development of children through our push for academia. Despite the overwhelming data, the education system and parents continue their push to ready our little ones so they meet educational standards and succeed as we deem fit. One grade two teacher I spoke to summed it up when she said that her job is to teach children to become little workers. Indeed, we are raising children to become little adults.
Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College, recently shared a study that demonstrates the dangers and limits of readying children through excessive academia: “In the 1970s, the German government sponsored a large-scale comparison in which the graduates of 50 play-based kindergartens were compared, over time, with the graduates of 50 academic direct-instruction-based kindergartens. Despite the initial academic gains of direct instruction, by grade four the children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used. In particular, they were less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally.”
Peter also shared another study in which the “superintendent of Manchester (N.H.) schools, L. P. Benezet…showed that children who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard school calculations and much better on math story problems than kids who had received six years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods—the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results.”
So why do parents and our education system continue to impose their need for readiness on children? You could say that they are ignorant of the impact they have on children’s development, both in the short and long term; or, they feel pressured by their peers or the school system. But what is causing the ignorance and pressure? What is filtering their sensitivity to our children’s deeper needs?
The loss of innocence
The core reason we ready children too early and too much is because we lost our innocence, and in this, we lost faith in play. At some point in our lives, we were pulled away from the squiggly path you see on the right side of the image, the playful, imaginative, expressive path we embodied so well as children; the one we explored freely through our creative twists and turns. We were told “No!” enough times to narrow our lives to the straight line, to where we “ought” to be.
Usually unwittingly, and without the intent to harm, our parents, teachers and others taught us that our squiggly impulses—our emotions, dreams, needs and desires—were not valid. Some of us may have fought hard to resist, as more and more kids are doing today. And some of us may have conceded early on. But for all of us, we chose to believe that we were wrong or bad for being who we naturally were. In an act of shame and self-preservation we tucked our squiggly impulses away and conceded to the laws of linearity.
Most adults do not know the extent to which they have denied their playful spirit. The filter, the self-preservation, is that strong. This includes filtering the emotional body, specifically the fear, sadness and anger associated with denying ourselves for so long, as well as the joys and wonder of our childlike heart. We have lost touch with what it is to lose ourselves in the present moment, and feel pure unadulterated wonder and delight; to feel the eagerness of our desires, including the desire to explore, dream and be a part of the world in a meaningful way. We have lost touch with feeling the soft warm connection we have with family, friends and strangers; and with feeling the pain, sadness and anger for having to abandon our authentic nature in order to live along a prescribed linear path.
To the extent that we were told “No” in our childhood, were made wrong, and felt shame and guilt for our squiggly emotional impulses; to the extent that we could not safely express the creativity burning in our hearts, we kept our emotional body crystalized, safe from the judgments of others. We held ourselves in check on the straight line of compliance and conformity. We made the only decision we could make—to self-preserve: to dumb down our feelings, to be strong in order to cope, or even survive, so we could function within the demands and busyness of life. We became self-controlled.
Emotion, however, is not meant to be static, controlled or contained within the narrow lines of appropriateness. Rather, it is meant to be free to move in spirals, twists and turns. Emotion is, after all, energy in motion: e-motion. Children model emotional wellbeing by expressing their feelings with great fluidly. From sadness, to anger, to laughter, they squiggle along a wide winding emotional path, moving through multiple emotions within a short period of time. How they move physically in their spontaneous twists and turns is an expression of how they feel. They literally embody the squiggly path.
Grieving our loss
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” ~ Washington Irving
Losing this innate and ancient impulse to be the free playful spirits we are, to feel fully, and live with an open heart deeply connected to life, is no small thing, although our culture makes it out to be. We’ve done a very good job at keeping ourselves in check, being strong, “keeping things together”, and “getting on with life”. We’ve exceeded at distracting ourselves from the grief we continue to harbor, and that wants to be felt and moved. And because we live in a culture built around, and defined by, endless distraction, we all fall prey to the endless game of circumvention and collusion we call “reality”.
Compared to other cultures such as some indigenous communities, our western world does not recognize, honor and practice grieving as much. We do not have grieving traditions or ceremonies where feeling fully is encouraged and held in a sacred container. There is greater investment in what we have and know than in who we are and how we feel. Getting “there” supersedes, and conveniently distracts us from being “here”, including with our emotions. This is our reality, yet what’s left behind is the child who never got to feel.
Grieving is simply allowing our locked emotional states to flow freely in our body. It is opening to and feeling what lies behind the tightly closed doors of the many rooms in our emotional home. Grief happens when we don’t feel. Grieving happens when we do. When the body is allowed to move as it is meant to, both emotionally and physically, we set ourselves free. We reclaim the right to be the raw, wild and free beings we are, and were as children.
In doing my ongoing inner work over the last 18 years, I have felt many emotions that I didn’t even know existed inside of me. I have cried, I have shook, sometimes on behalf of my immediate family, and sometimes on behalf of what felt like my ancestral lineage. I remember one day in particular when I realized, through the help of a counselor, how strong my father had to be given his challenging upbringing, and where he came from. A deep swell of sadness suddenly filled my chest, and I found my body bent over as I unexpectedly sobbed for the ages. I sobbed for myself, for my father, for those before him, and for the world. I grieved for all those who had to leave the presence of their inner child, the presence of life, behind them.
Through empathizing with my pain, and unmet needs and desires, I have over time become empathic to others’ pain, needs and desires. Sensitivity, attunement, compassion and acceptance have increasingly imbued my thoughts, words and actions. The impulse to push myself, and others, down linear roads my father adamantly stood for, roads only the linear fearful mind can see, has lessoned. Instead, I have learned to let myself and others be; to trust my heart, and trust and support the heart-felt paths other people choose to take.
The fear adults have in leaving the linear path, and their determination to keep children on it, specifically through academia, is based in a lack of trust in their deeper Self; specifically, in their ability to safely feel, dream, play and live on the squiggly path, to be as they were when children. It is a manifestation of their unconscious compulsion to continue avoiding the grieving needed to create emotional fluidity and wellbeing.
It is natural to want to evade what is uncomfortable—to not feel “bad”. Many people fear that if they enter the dark waters of the emotional body they will drown. Again, this is only natural since most of us have not been taught to swim. But in avoiding our emotional body, we forget that we are already in despair; we are already drowning. It’s just that we cannot feel it. It’s become our norm. And it’s the norm of society.
This norm then spills over into our education system.
Our need to keep to the straight and narrow defines how we design and deliver education, and how we believe children should be and develop. We push them onto the straight line of A-B-C’s and 1-2-3’s at an early age because it is where we comfortably and firmly stand, and because we unconsciously fear the murky waters that lie beneath and beyond. Indeed, how we treat others mirrors how we treat ourselves. Children are a by-product of the grief held captive within parents and those within the education system. They are walking the line we have defined as reality so that they don’t experience what we fear to be with.
Research and advocacy are not enough. We must feel.
Continued work certainly needs to be done to advocate for play, and to educate on its importance in child development. We need to highlight and understand the detrimental effects programs such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind has on children. But information alone is clearly not enough given parents, administrators and educators continue to struggle digesting what is being researched and outlined. Their attachment to the straight line, and specifically to their grief, keeps them closed.
Play is highly vulnerable for a reason. We were judged, we were condemned, we were punished, sometimes harshly, for simply being our innocent curious selves. To digest what researchers are saying about why play is important, and have faith in something that we learned was bad and unsafe, goes against our conditioned worldview. It rubs up against our long-standing walls of self-preservation and control—the walls that frame our narrow paths, the walls we identify with, the walls that have served us so well for so many years, and that we grant unwavering faith in.
For this reason, being playful takes tremendous desire, courage and self-awareness. It requires us to begin the long journey of going within to dismantle our walls brick by brick; and to slowly lower ourselves into the murky vulnerable waters of our fear, sadness and anger that lie on the other side of the partition. But if we do make this sacred return home into our body, we’ll discover that what lies on the other side is life itself—our hearts will open to the mysterious quality of being fully alive once again: of experiencing our interconnection with all things; of feeling what it is to love, and yes even hurt, ache, in raw fullness; and of celebrating this profound existence in unbounded joy and wonder.
As we unfold from our tightly contained chrysalis and freely inhabit the spirit of playfulness, we will have greater faith in the playful spirit to dictate the unfolding of children, to be a guiding force in their growth and development. We will offer greater empathy to the fluid emotional body that wants to move and express itself in any given moment. And we will more easily and joyfully walk beside children, slowly, in their creative reality, and let them lead the way.
We will love them, for we will have learned to love ourselves.
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults